Wish you were here

Note on: chance happenings and music interpretation. (New “note” format briefly discussed here).

A project which seems very worth starting: an account of how music analysis not only “doesn’t occur in a vacuum” in terms of social and political context and fact, but also is insanely coloured by mood and condition of listening.

Because this is the truth, there is still a “procedural bifurcation” as Kramer suggests, between impersonal literary-critic-style analysis, and sociological studies of habits. And there must be room for an (auto)ethnographic, analytical niche in the middle, which embraces emotional reactions to specific songs *and their meanings*.

Today it was the intuition, hearing the guitar solo at the start, that “Wish You Were Here” is so sloppy and erotic, like a tall man languishing, so much potency and idleness. A semiotic likeness to “Time”, when you look at your present from a weird, outside perspective? Certainly that is the lead role in the cage. The feeling of “lovesick” because of missing whoever it is, who can bring purpose to someone’s life. Some degree of obsession too maybe, intense focus on whoever it is. And so you “fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way”, even if you are supposed to be doing something else that is in fact quite urgent.


open letter to david (bowie)

Now that you are back at your home in the sky,

I hope that you have found a place just as unsettling as you are – I imagine you, poised between two stars, unsure which of you three is about to explode next (but it will definitely be you: the question is when). And there you have it: your critical confoundedness is epitomised in that last sentence that I wrote. You are so mercurial that the amount you change has become a cliche in itself. Critics will not shut up about your ‘constant reinvention’, but when will they reinvent themselves?

The problem is, David Bowie, you have put us all in a quandary. With your quicksilver changes what is there of you really to latch onto? For surely there has to be a fragment of embarrassingly simple person poking around the edges of your many personae, in order for us to like or love you. You are a Magical Mister Mistoffelees, where we watch fabulous stunts – we may even remark, ‘Oh, well I never, was there ever a cat [man] so clever as…?’ – but little of ‘the real you’ is visible. Oh, and believe me, I am as sceptical as any existentialist about the ‘true self’ even existing; but there has to be something at least relatively consistent and physical about a person.

And yet the name Mistoffelees also hints at perhaps some devilish magic (like Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus) that really does set you apart and, paradoxically, show some strange, androgynous consistency; and perhaps that is what we look for. Unlike real men and women you are the figure of the artist par excellence, showing some kind of delight (deadpan and unemotional as it seems to be) in constant evanescence. Dark and devoid of personality, like Jimmy Page perhaps, it is surprisingly humble that you do this: we do at least have a lot to study. Without really focusing on you as a person we can at least look at your work. That is unusual for a rock star.

Sure enough, throughout the day when we heard that you were dead, it was when your songs were played, to which I knew all the lyrics, that I felt like I could come in from the cold and finally play a role in mourning. You, the Blackstar: as everyone seems to be quoting, ‘Something happened on the day he died/ Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside/ Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried (I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)’. I would read the lines as saying something like – someone else longs to die and go to (dark) heaven more than you, and takes your place. In the end, though, it points again to identity being unimportant, except from song to song; it is performance and communication in the moment that matters. From the lovable daddy of ‘Kooks’ to the musical theatre star of ‘Five Years’, to the psychedelic, sickly singer in ‘Heroes’. Your voice is irreducibly distinct, across most of these; another trace of you which remains, despite the constant changes. But what does it matter, when each of the songs leaves such an imprint?

When we talk of the constant changes of the Blackstar we are right; but really, we are getting it wrong. As a true dramatist you didn’t want us to look at the man behind the masks. That is why, what I would call your ‘king’ character, the slightly demonic, elusive magician who weaves into your many other authoritarian, mischievous roles, does not exactly seem pleased to meet us when we poke out our fingers to grab hold of him. You’re an introverted alternative to the ‘good actor’ model, who, like the Blackstar, looks not to himself but to the plot as providing truths. The problems of your slightly scary, exalted kind of solitariness do not go away by saying this, but you do pose an interesting question to us now. Why do we obsess so much over people and ‘personality’? And is there anything to learn, in a post-reformation, psychoanalytic age, from your calling us to look beyond the factual person to fictions alone as places to find solace and refuge? Perhaps we ought to thank you, for helping us let go.

soundtrack to shakespeare

John Donne wasn’t keen on setting literature to music –

‘I am two fools, I know,/ For loving, and for saying so/ In whining poetry’.

… and the man who sets this whining to music makes him a triple fool. But in my humble opinion this was probably because Renaissance music wasn’t up to much.

In relative seriousness, though, I think that a lot of modern pop songs suit the moods of Shakespeare’s plays extremely well.

If the pop literature of that day had pop songs to go with it from today – this has been my little game for the last few months – I’m sure JD would have loved it. I have studied an awful lot of Shakespeare this year.

How about:

(youtube playlist, where all the songs can be found in order)


William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Aqualung, Strange and Beautiful

It’s amazing how sweet and down-to-earth this song makes an absolute pervert seem. Or, it’s a desperate, imaginative attempt to cope with the bitterness of rejection. Both, I think, are what Oberon feels about Titania all along.

Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia – Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You

I know, I know, the train of thought wasn’t hard from the last song to this. But try reading all these texts! The kind of spell and spellgiver this song gives is different to the last; angst is multiplied by 800 and suddenly everything is stifled by a more heavy and poisonous lovesickness, because the spells are all in the sinister, clingy spirit of GYNECIA – like all of Sidney’s lovers in this story.

Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book III – Kate Bush, Constellation of the Heart

My mind is humming with this backwards-playing, dizzying introspection; it’s a bit like being overcome by bees. I’m sure that’s what Spenser would have wanted with his introspective story of magical crystal balls, penetrating pens, trees growing out of women and women growing out of trees.

William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale – Tori Amos, Silent All These Years

The Winter’s Tale is the saddest of the romances, and this song is one of the saddest songs of all time – both because they don’t seem to try to be. ‘sometimes I hear my voice, and it’s been here… silent all these years’.

William Shakespeare, The Tempest – Ellie Goulding, The Writer

In truth this song could go with nearly all these romances/comedies because so much is about the male characters ‘writing’ women. Perhaps Prospero is the ultimate ‘writer’/controller figure. Ellie Goulding doesn’t seem to mind giving up her animation to a man – neither does Miranda, and maybe even Hermione. Good sports, aren’t they?



Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (1 and 2) – Bat for Lashes, Oh Yeah

I do love the childish boldness of naming a character ‘Zenocrate’. This song rivals Marlowe in ostentatious exoticism. Mildly vulgar but deeply thrilling. Tragedy? NAAH.

William Shakespeare, Macbeth – Lana del Rey, Off to the Races

Oh all right, I’ll go with the tacky ambitious Lady Macbeth and pair her with Lana del Rey. This song does sound a bit like something between nausea and dizziness, but Macbeth is nightmarish too. The bit where Lana del Rey starts talking about ‘red nail polish’ is suitably spruce and rhythmic for Lady M. But the Macbeths would suit blues music too, softer and more vulnerable.

John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi – Jessie Ware, Night Light

Unfortunately Jessie Ware thinks that ghosts are blind – but this harsh-sounding song is, like Webster’s play, ‘Too much in the dark’, secret and frightened. She also sounds sinisterly spied-upon, like the Duchess. Is the watcher her lover or her stalker?!

Thomas Middleton, The Changeling – David Bowie, Heroes

This is a generous interpretation of The Changeling, and I did at first just want to keep it because it flows on well from the last song. But its sound does match the horrid stifledness of the play’s central relationships, its emphasis on love crossing repressive social borders, and the sense of the madhouse.

Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women Madonna, Material Girl

Cheap, horrid and a lot of fun. I bet Bianca does have a squeaky voice like Madonna’s. Good for her. ‘Experience has made me rich, and now they’re after me’ – Livia?

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus – P. J. Harvey, The Glorious Land

This song is super-English, and Coriolanus is the most Roman of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. But still not that Roman, because this song, with its hard, militaristic beat, its patriotism, and its description of ‘our glorious country’ being ‘ploughed by tanks and feet’, ‘Not with wheat and corn’, sounds a lot like this proud lump of a warrior and his starving antagonists.

William Shakespeare, King Lear – Laura Mvula, Diamonds

Lear’s a twin with Coriolanus in many ways, I think. If both plays were a colour both would be green. Both start off hard nuts and both probably have diamonds in their hearts. But Lear goes through a specially soft, oozy bit with Cordelia that qualifies him better for this song. People are sacred, worth more than meets the eye, all over this play.

William Shakespeare, Hamlet – Kate Bush, Reaching Out

I was so pleased when I found this, late in the game – like most of my thoughts on Hamlet. I thought it reflected Hamlet’s spiritual anguish and hope when I heard the chorus at first, but the Gertrude camp would have a ball with this song too, since it ascribes much or all of this glory to The Mother. It’s not surprising that KB has a double hit on this blog. She’s definitely mad enough for the Renaissance. Legend.

‘saving mr banks’ and the bastardised eucatastrophe

I had been looking forward to seeing Saving Mr Banks ever since I saw Victoria Coren Mitchell’s recent documentary on P. L. Travers. The movie follows the historical artistic confrontation between this very English authoress, and the very American – or, just very Disney – Walt and his crew, in making a film of Mary Poppins. Mrs Travers, visiting Disney in Los Angeles, wrestles Mickey Mouse toys, as well as the big man himself, to overcome a weird combination of emotive personal crises and aesthetic disagreements in the struggle to make a satisfactory Disney film with her subtly dark and disturbing stories.

The problem, of course, is that, for Travers, ‘satisfactory Disney film’ is basically oxymoronic.The film depicts well Travers’s resistance to the invented moral sentimentalising in ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’, and her hissy fits at Disney’s sly addition of cartoons in the ‘jolly holiday’ section of his Mary Poppins (I’d argue she was right: the dancing penguins are bloody awful!). As the documentary informed me, all of this discontent was actual, and in fact worse, in history: so much so, that Travers disliked the film to the end.

But aesthetics weren’t given as much emphasis as biography in the film. The movie was really about how Mary Poppins is a rewriting of Travers’s childhood. Mrs Travers, we are told to believe, based her novels so heavily on memories of her own upbringing that she cannot possibly relinquish the fact that Mr Banks was clean-shaven (like her own father). The coverage of the memories – her childhood as ‘Ginty’ in Australia – is largely well done, well-painted. If occasionally I had the urge to shove my fingers down my throat, the portrayal of the young girl was excellent: uncomplaining, uncharismatic, not winning, and therefore deserving of genuine, unpatronising sympathy.

I still find it impossible to stomach, though, the fiction that P. L. Travers became uncontrollably emotional in Los Angeles because she was flooded with childhood memories. I don’t have a brilliant connection to P. L. Travers – I haven’t read any of her books, and don’t know more than an hour’s worth of her real biography – but this weepy portrayal seemed absurdly out of character, maybe even within the film itself as a whole. P. L. Travers starts off with aesthetic concerns about Disney making a film of her book, but more and more they turn into emotional (sentimental) ones throughout the narrative, so that, by the end, it is exclusively, shamelessly, emotional concerns which are addressed, and supposedly ‘healed’, by the end.

The film goes halfway to addressing this. By making a film about conflict between two authors, the Disney machine is given a rare opportunity to account for its aesthetics, and the moral principles behind its art – deep things. Walt flies all the way over to London to tell ‘Pamela’ why his stories must have happy endings. Real life is so hard, so bleak, that we have to fill the craving people have for redemption somewhere: and why not in a story?

Now this is something that fits in ever so well with the theme of this blog, and of course I have thought of it lots and lots. As a general principle it is glorious, and common. Longing for redemption is everywhere, because it is true. J. R. R. Tolkien invented a term, eucatastrophe, which had a few more specific conditions than I explain, but overall, sort of diluted, refers to the turning of sorrow into joy, the turning from a dreadful plot event, in a story, to miraculous victory. The longing for a happy ending is fulfilled within our intricate little stories, Tolkien argues, because they mirror the true happy ending, the stunningly unexpected victory over certain despair and darkness of real life – the Incarnation, the cross, and Christ’s defeat of death.

And now I get on a roll, and begin to realise that Mary Poppins contains a plot remarkably close to eucatastrophe. Oh, Tolkien would have hated Disney about as much as Travers, I’m sure, but Mr Banks is sacked from his job in a remarkably humiliating way, and then restored, but to an even higher position, all on the basis of what his silly, naive, magic-believing children do. Perhaps also on the basis of his having shaken hands with a lucky chimney sweep. And then, maybe behind that all, because of Mary Poppins and the mysterious forces behind her.

I’m very grateful to Saving Mr Banks for having pointed me in that direction, of looking deeper into Mary Poppins. There are lots of witty allusions (foot-tapping; riding side saddle; carpet bags) as well as this large, rather slapped-on artistic ‘message’ about Disney, to Mary Poppins in the new film, too. Really and truly, it was a pleasant film to watch. The soundtrack was brilliant. I’m a little bit in love with Emma Thompson, her marvellous facial expressions, and her pleasantly feminine portrayal of Mrs Travers. The structure of the film, too, was a great adaptation of history into ‘story’ form, with the mystery of why Mrs Travers throws her pears in the swimming pool that is not resolved until nearly the end, and the paralleling of ‘present’ narrative time, with memories.

But the film does not do what its message sets out, which is so glib and nasty that I can’t really call it ironic. Mrs Travers is patted on the back by Walt whilst watching horrible parts of the film, and he says: ‘It’s ok. Mr Banks is going to be all right’. Now, much as we are given an interesting, though probably obnoxiously speculative, interpretation of the Mr Banks narrative in Travers’s work, this does not give Disney license to sweep all the more obvious concerns under the carpet. The animated penguins, the crass colours, and the sentimentalising that reaches a ‘macro’ level in Saving Mr Banks would have warranted probably even more revulsion from P. L. Travers than Mary Poppins, because this time Disney goes just one step further than bastardising her fiction, in taking a similar (patronising, male chauvinistic pig) liberty with her life.

‘Two Better Hemispheres’.

This poster communicates some realisations from a project in which I investigated how John Donne portrays heaven. Slightly unconventional way of publishing literary results – a poster was a project requirement – but it was fun to involve images and connect with St Paul’s Cathedral and St Andrews’ Special Collections. It was exciting and a huge privilege not only to play with Donne all summer, but to get to go to an academic conference at the end.

If you click on the poster it loads massively bigger. Hope that helps.


‘feral youth’ – just voice

It was a slightly startling experience, after reams and reams of iambic pentameter, to begin reading a novel again this summer. Even more, opening the page to discover sentences like: ‘JJ says we saw him get shanked last night, but really and truly, I didn’t see nothing’.

‘Feral Youth’ is the sixth novel from Polly Courtney, which was first published this June. It was a pleasure to meet Polly, recently: a kind mentor to an aspiring writer. We also had some chat about this new book, and the way she writes. This is a lady who has been in the media, even the news, to discuss some of the issues around her novels, including the London riots, covered in this latest one. In fact, her first novel, ‘Golden Handcuffs’, which is about the grotesque treatment of graduates in City jobs, started as a series of autobiographical anecdotes – until her agent recommended fiction. Until actually meeting one it hadn’t dawned on me, how wonderful it is that (good) novelists are experts…

‘Feral Youth’ follows Alesha, a fifteen-year-old girl from Peckham, South London. Her ‘fam’ is JJ, her boyfriend, with whom she lives, with his nan, until the council decide to move Nan to a care home, since, JJ and Alesha not being registered as living there for their own problematic reasons, she is judged as unable to take care of herself. Forced to find their own accommodation, the two teenagers are hooked into a deeper and more threatening involvement with the Peckham Crew: a full-blown bloody, rough, hierarchical, sexist gang, with guns, and immensely dangerous power, at the centre. And whilst Alesha gets to know the ins and outs of this gang (all too intimately), she encounters her old piano teacher: one grown up on her side, who seeks to help her into more hopeful places, despite Alesha’s inability to see beyond her limitations. Frustrated and revolted at the difficulty on both sides, she has to choose one.

Opening up this book, as a ‘voice’ fanatic, the first thing I wondered was, how, and how well, had Polly managed to write a fifteen-year-old South London teenage girl who doesn’t read or write? Posing the question reminds me that it’s both an artificial, and a gracious, exercise.

In my reading ‘head voice’, I was partaking in the artificial exercise. To start with, it stuck out painfully. I felt like my mum was trying to talk in her ‘down with the kids’ voice. #cringe. But it was me, the reader, making that discomfort, because after not long at all, a few of the accessibly short chapters in, the voice stopped sticking. It became unnoticeable, and spending time with Alesha became effortless and extremely enjoyable. Polly had said to me, she even began to think like Alesha (the protagonist) – I also began to think in Alesha’s voice, with Alesha’s logic, and Alesha’s attitude. ‘Shoplifting by people who’ve been robbed of any chances is, in a way, justice’, I said to a horrified friend. With this absorption, I was surprised at how some critics have called Alesha ‘opinionated’.

‘Opinionated’ is a harsh word, that I would not have used. I’ve even looked it up in the OED to check my point. Sure, meaning #1 is reasonable: ‘having a (specified) opinion’. But most protagonists would be pretty boring without some of that. It’s the connotations of this, that I don’t like: ‘Thinking too highly of, or holding obstinately to, one’s own opinion; conceited; dogmatic’. She’s not that. She does change her opinions. She’s no Jeremy Clarkson when it comes to speaking one’s mind loudly and proudly. Alesha, with her strange artificial voice? Well, she wasn’t asked to come inside this book. It’s all internal – she reports how her life is. What she can’t see past. Even before Miss Merfield enters, she seems to look at her situation and judge sensibly, what are her realistic options. And what does and doesn’t seem fair. She takes a while to adjust to what her teacher tells her – but don’t we all? Pretty reasonable, pretty believable. Within realistic human expectations.

After all, there is much more to see about Alesha. I ‘m not the first to call her ‘loveable’. She becomes a part of us. Miss Merfield’s nagging Alesha and persuading her into these hopeless-seeming job interviews encouraged me to do things that scare me too, as a rather different, privileged, 21-year-old Eng. Lit student!

Chatting with Polly, it was interesting to hear that her books are not easily shelved. There have been many struggles fitting them into a ‘genre’ – social protest books? We supposed it would go along those such as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, or, more modern, ‘The Help’. After having read ‘Feral Youth’, though, it was hard to think of any other kind of desirable genre. Do I want to be a bourgeois book buyer? Do the arts really encourage those sorts of ‘well-to-do’ things (and even that word is loaded with the idea of patronage and feeling better about oneself), or are they rather a bit of clevermaking titillation?

As ‘clevermaking titillation’, it’s not bad, though. It has its finely orchestrated climaxes. Its peak, it is easy for me to say, is that primely controversial moment, the London riots. Alesha is at her most anxious, poised in a choice between Miss Merfield’s and JJ’s worlds, and here it comes, in energy – here’s a BBM:

‘Dead the endz and colour war for now so if you see a brother… SALUTE! if you see a fed… SHOOT!’

And this is how the world looks:

‘Clapham’s even more madness than Brixton. First thing I see is this shell of a car, upturned, black and charred – still smoking – in the shape of a Focus. A police car. The sky here is black, like it’s night. Then I see why. A whole row of shops is on fire, the curtain store at the end spewing big orange flames like there’s a roaring dragon inside’.

And what with the flood of messages, of BBMs, the voices all come together into a polyphonic deluge of sound, of people. ‘My phone comes alive in my hands’.

And Alesha? ‘My belly’s doing spins inside me. It’s revenge, that’s what it is. Revenge for what the fedz did to Omar and what they do to people like him every day of the week’.

‘Rye Lane’s like a burnt-out ghost town: blackened brickwork, smashed-in shop fronts, buses stopped in the streets with spider-web cracks across the windscreen.’

Something visual and tragic about this waste land. Or, like the revolution from Les Mis.

‘Brixton’s burning!’

What Polly Courtney does really well, is to juxtapose these heights of eloquence and excitement with the dead, flat voice; the ugly, quasi-genial media voice of the villains who interview Alesha:

‘INSIDE THE MIND OF A FERAL YOUTH, it says. That’s the headline. I don’t even know what that word means, that word feral, but I know it ain’t good’. The reporter quotes just what Alesha said – out loud – at her interview: ‘I just wanted to go out and cause trouble’. ‘We ruled the streets. It was like, up yours, to the police. That’s how we felt’.

But there is also Alesha’s parallel, surely far more stirring, internal version of events: ‘Coz finally there was a rebellion against all the things that was bad in my life, and for once it felt like we could take control, turn the tables on the feds. I got involved coz my head was spinning with crazy thoughts about JJ and what happened to him and what might of happened to him, and the more I didn’t get no reply from him, the more I felt like tearing down buildings’.

That’s why she’s not ‘opinionated’. It’s feelings, spinning. Not at all opinionated: she keeps her opinions to herself – rather painfully, to a reader, with whom she shares her innermost, and rather articulate, thoughts. She doesn’t seem to make them herself, to choose them self-confidently: the ‘revolution’ just comes.

That’s where the artifice comes into it again. Two types of artist, two faces, are shown: there is the journalist, who writes in her from-above, token, phoney ‘understanding’ way, and then there is – who? Miss Merfield is an archetype of the other, understanding artist, who listens. This becomes a sort of theme, as Miss Merfield herself was helped by her piano teacher beforehand.

But it’s not that, here: it’s the Alesha-voice herself, the voice of the novelist. The writer is, of course, the good artist. Who gives a voice to the voiceless, performing the artificial exercise that should never have been artificial in the first place (but probably will always be needed).

I absolutely love the connection this book both brings up thematically, and inhabits, itself, about the arts and social justice. By embodying, and embodying well, the voiceless. Performing the unimaginable miracle of changing inarticulacy into words, yet keeping it the same person. Never the voice of the powerful.

As an appendix, then, I want to add – precisely because of this vast strength – the artist in me shudders at the ironic title. Of the true artist adopting the words of the phoney. ‘Feral Youth’ indeed.

And it’s meant to be, I’m sure. We’re meant to splutter at the scab of a title.

Which is the only part of the book not in Alesha’s voice, at all.

Notwithstanding that, though, which is doubtless a deliberate clang of the jarring gong of injustice, it’s a brilliant read. Easy, enjoyable, in places very beautiful, gets you thinking, and, most of all, alive.

the start

Hello! I’m Billie. Thank you if you are reading this. Welcome to this new site: about beautiful, tremblingly grubby-fingered life-giving art.

I love literature, and need music. ‘Art Catholic’ means, simply, that I see God in this art.

For the rest of my writing, this may well only be implicit, but I believe – God animates the very core of everything. He is the justification and the connection of art to real life. God is the earth wire of art, the pungent salt and the demand which makes anything challenging. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote something remarkable: “We want the sense of the saturation of Christ’s blood upon the souls of our poets, that it may cry through them in answer to the ceaseless wail of the Sphinx of our humanity, expounding agony into renovation. Something of this has been perceived in art when its glory was at the fullest”.*

I think this ‘ethic’ is understandable, transposable, and maybe even applicable to more than merely Christians. Here’s something to make you wonder: I’m not even a ‘catholic’.

But really, looking at this salty art will be the focus of this blog. It will be there to move and shift, to ‘disturb us’ and pull us into love and anger, singsong and sad bittersweet passion: just different bits of life from an estranged angle.

I plan to reflect on different pieces at a time.

* Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets’.